Buying Guitars Online - Setting Realistic Expectations

Buying Guitars Online – Setting Realistic Expectations

Last Updated: Aug 28, 2018

Negative guitar reviews like this one are all over the internet--written by people who don't know what to expect of a guitar ordered online.

Negative guitar reviews like this one are all over the internet–written by people who know little (or nothing) about guitars.

One thing that really burns me up is seeing negative reviews left for guitars ordered online–for things that aren’t actually problems or, in some cases, are completely normal.

When putting together my recent post on really great beginner electric guitars, I read a lot of negative guitar reviews on Amazon that were totally unfounded.

That’s when a realization hit me: many people (especially beginners) have absolutely no idea what to expect of a guitar ordered online. No surprise, really, but the problem is that they’re leaving bad reviews on good guitars that usually only need some basic adjustments after the rigors of shipping.



Buying Guitars Online: The Reality

In a perfect world, a guitar that you order online would arrive at your doorstep perfectly setup, in-tune and ready-to-play. The strings would be brand new and stretched properly, neck relief would be just right, string height would be reasonable, and the guitar would be free of any excessive fret buzz.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world.

The harsh reality is that guitars ordered online rarely arrive perfectly setup. If you’re extremely lucky, the guitar will simply be a bit out of tune when it arrives. However, it’s far more likely that it’ll be out-of-tune, the strings may be uncomfortably high, or so low that they’re buzzing against the frets. If it’s an electric with a floating tremolo, I can almost guarantee the tremolo won’t be balanced properly. You may even have a few loose screws here and there.

What You’ll Learn in This Article

If you’re planning to buy a guitar online–especially if you’re a beginner or otherwise know very little about guitars–here’s what I hope to teach you with this article:

  • To better judge negative guitar reviews on the guitar you’re interested in ordering. Recognize which negative ratings are legit complaints, and which ones are just silly and can be ignored (and why).
  • To have realistic expectations of a guitar that’s been shipped to you. You usually need to budget an extra $40 – $60 to have a guitar set up properly after it arrives.
  • To not leave an unnecessarily bad review on a guitar you ordered online, thereby dissuading others from purchasing a perfectly good guitar.

Online Guitar Reviews: Real Examples

Using real Amazon reviews, let’s look at 6 examples of negative guitar reviews. I’ll post a screenshot of the review, and then provide my verdict (whether it’s bogus and should be ignored, or legit and should be taken seriously). I’ll also explain why I’ve decided whether it’s bogus or legit.

Example #1:

A negative guitar review on Amazon.com

My Response: Bogus!

String buzz–or fret buzz–is rarely a genuine defect in a guitar ordered online. It can often be fixed (or minimized) with a few simple tweaks, if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll have to take it to someone for a basic setup which will run you $40 – $60.

Even IF the guitar was setup prior to shipping (which they rarely are) the rigors of shipping, moving to a different climate, etc. can knock things out-of-whack. Giving a guitar a 1-star rating for having string buzz right off the truck is a shame, because it probably isn’t the guitar’s fault. Most guitars need a full setup regardless of whether they’ve been ordered online or bought off the wall at a guitar store.

Oh, and in case you didn’t already know: some string buzz is normal, depending on a combination of factors such as how hard you hit the string, string gauge, string brand, string height, and more.

You can ignore a negative review like this one.

Example #2:

A negative guitar review on Amazon.com

My Response: Bogus!

Ugh! Here we go again. Of course you had to take it to a local shop for a setup. As I said above, a guitar that’s been through the rigors of shipping will usually need to be setup properly to sound and play its best. The real tragedy here is that this reviewer didn’t elaborate and tell us how the guitar played after the setup. Did it play beautifully and turn out to be a good guitar after all? Or, was it unfixable–thereby warranting this sad, 1-star review being here forever?

Since we’ll never know, you can ignore this negative review.

Example #3:

A negative guitar review on Amazon.com

My Response: Bogus!

A 1-star review because the high E string broke? Are you kidding me? This is an unfortunate example of what happens when someone who knows absolutely nothing about guitars leaves an online review. Strings break. Heck, they sometimes break when they’re brand new and being installed for the first time. It’s maddening, but welcome to the life of a guitarist.

And don’t even get me started with the comment about how the guitar “… sounds very bad.” The reviewer obviously knows nothing about guitars, but apparently they’re able to objectively rate its tonal quality. Oh, and I’m sure her husband’s playing ability had nothing to do with the guitar sounding bad.

Ignore reviews like this one when deciding whether to buy a guitar online.

Example #4:

A negative guitar review on Amazon.com

My Response: Legit!

Not only are these legit complaints, I would’ve given this guitar an even lower rating and sent it back. There’s no good excuse for a guitar to arrive with a poor paint job and flat, uncrowned frets. Frets should never be left flat on top–that’s just lazy, negligent fretwork. It’s also possible this is actually a used guitar, and a previous owner tried to do their own “fret job.”

It’s one thing for a new guitar to need a basic setup, but you shouldn’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for expensive fretwork just to get the guitar playable. Take advantage of Amazon’s generous return policy and send that sucker back to the seller in exchange for another one–one that only needs a basic setup.

Since this is a legit complaint, carefully scrutinize other reviews left on this guitar and see if it seems to be a common theme.

Example #5:

 

A negative guitar review on Amazon.com

My Response: Legit!

An acoustic guitar bridge coming unglued from the body

Unacceptable. This is a guitar that actually deserves a negative review

A bridge coming unglued on a brand new guitar is unacceptable, and deserving of a negative review. Oh sure, there are other factors that can cause this, such as rough shipping or improper humidity in your home. However, in a brand new guitar it’s often the result of negligence (or bad quality assurance) during manufacturing. A bridge that’s properly glued-and-dried should be able to withstand being jostled around during shipping as well as some normal weather changes. A bridge coming unglued should only happen with extreme abuse, extreme old-age, or long-term exposure to weather extremes.

If you see a review about the bridge coming unglued, look carefully to see if others have experienced the same thing. If not, and the guitar also has a good number of positive reviews, you may be safe to proceed with buying that model. Obviously, if you see others with the same issue, perhaps it’s a guitar you should pass up.

Example #6:

A negative guitar review on Amazon.com review

My Response: Kinda Legit

Is that actual blood on this guitar string?

Whoa! Is that actual blood on this guitar string?

Okay, this is just disgusting… assuming there’s actually blood on that low E string (I’m skeptical). However, I’m calling this one only “kinda legit” because this is a case where it’s actually the seller that deserves the 1-star review, not the guitar. Cosmetic issues like nicks, dents, and stains are all good reasons to send the guitar back to the seller, but they’re not an indication of a low quality guitar. These are the result of careless handling, not actual manufacturing or functional defects. This reviewer obviously received a guitar that was used (and abused).

In this case, I wouldn’t necessarily avoid the guitar, I’d avoid the seller. See if you can find this model being sold by someone else with a better track record. Oh, and don’t forget: leave a negative review on the seller, not the guitar.

Bad Guitar vs. Bad Seller vs. Bad Shipper

So, the big distinction I want you to be able to make when buying a guitar online is the difference between a bad guitar and a bad seller. Also, let’s not forget the shipping company’s responsibility in all this. I mean, have you seen what they do to packages?

It’s not unusual for a guitar shipped across the country, sometimes to a completely different climate, to need some basic adjustments upon arrival. Then, after it has acclimated for awhile, it may need adjustments again. Welcome to the joys of owning a musical instrument made mostly of wood and glue. So, if your new mail-ordered guitar has some string buzz, action that’s too high, or won’t seem to stay in tune, it’s not necessarily defective, and doesn’t necessarily deserve a negative online review.

Sure, it would be great if your new axe was ready to rock right out of the box, but that’s extremely rare. It does happen, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.

Let me explain why.

Setting Realistic Expectations

I don’t love it, and I’m not defending it, but as I’ve said throughout this article you’re usually going to need to budget an extra $40 – $60 to have a guitar that you’ve ordered online setup properly. Unless, of course, you know someone who’ll do it for free.

If you’re ordering the guitar as a gift for a friend or loved one, don’t let them be the one to take the guitar out of the box for the very first time. I’ve read too many online reviews where the reviewer bought the guitar as a gift, and the recipient was the one who discovered that the guitar buzzed, wouldn’t stay in tune, etc. This can be an embarrassing situation for you, the gift-giver.

Instead, order the guitar at least a month in advance and have it inspected and setup prior to giving it as a gift. If it’s one of those “starter packs,” just have them repack the guitar after they’ve completed the setup. Your recipient will never know it was opened, and they’ll unbox a guitar that’s in-tune (or pretty close) and ready to rock.

But wait, aren’t guitars set up properly at the factory?

When a mass produced guitar comes off the assembly line it’ll get a very quick quality inspection and maybe some basic adjustments to get it “in the ballpark” of playability before it’s shipped to a retailer (music stores, online retailers, etc). This is done by a final QA (Quality Assurance) person, and each person can have dozens and dozens of guitars lined up and waiting for them every morning. So, out of necessity, this is not a thorough, detailed setup. It’s fast and furious.

Now, this varies by manufacturer, of course. Some of the more reputable manufacturers give each guitar more attention before they’re sent to retailers, and some high-end and all custom builders do indeed give every guitar an in-depth QA inspection and precision setup before they’re shipped.

However, if you’re ordering a cheap mass-produced guitar, you can rest assured that the factory probably spent no more than 5 – 10 minutes giving it a couple basic adjustments, if any at all.

Okay, but what about the retailer? Don’t THEY set it up before shipping it to me?

Don’t count on it, but again, it depends. Some places are better about this than others, but most of the big online retailers move so many guitars that they simply don’t have the manpower to give every guitar they sell a good setup before it goes out to you.

But then, there’s shipping

Even if the seller did give your guitar a thorough setup before shipping it to you, well, there’s everything that can happen to it during shipping. Getting jostled around and thrown is one thing. However, let’s not forget about climate changes. If you live in a dramatically different climate than where the guitar is coming from, it’s probably going to need some adjustment after it arrives–even if you let it acclimate for 1-2 days before opening the case (which I recommend).

Final Thoughts

If you’re planning to buy a guitar online, I hope you now have a better sense of how to judge the negative reviews you see. Some are downright bogus, and should be ignored. This is especially true on Amazon, which naturally has a bigger audience of shoppers who have little-to-no knowledge of guitars.

Lastly, when your guitar arrives, I hope you now have a better sense of what to expect–what’s normal and just needs a little TLC–and what’s truly a fault of the guitar (in which case, you should send it back and leave a negative review). Also, if it’s not truly the gutiar’s fault, be sure you leave your negative review for the SELLER and either don’t leave a review on the guitar itself or, if you do, thoroughly explain that it was the seller (or shipper’s) fault, and not the guitar itself.

Question:

Have you ever ordered a guitar online? If so, I’d love to hear how it went. Let me know in the comments section down below.

9 Guitar Care Myths... Explained

9 Guitar Care Myths… Explained

This post contains affiliate links, meaning, if you click through and make a purchase, I may earn a commission. This is at no additional cost to you. Learn more.

When you spend as much time talking to guitarists as I do, you hear it all–myths, misconceptions, misinformation, and outright legend. This is especially true when it comes to guitar care and maintenance. However, there are some that I hear over and over, and that’s what prompted me to write this blog post.

Here, I’ve compiled some of the most common guitar care myths–the ones I hear repeatedly. These are in no particular order…



Myth 1: “You should loosen your guitar strings when you’re not playing it”

Believe it or not, the #1 Google search that leads readers to this blog is some variation of: “should I loosen my guitar strings when I’m not playing?” So, apparently, this is a BIG question for a lot of beginner guitarists. I answered this question in this blog post in response to a reader’s question on the topic, but I’ll restate it here:

You do not need to loosen your guitar’s strings when you’re not playing it. Simply put your guitar back on the stand or back in its case when you’re finished playing. The guitar’s neck is designed to withstand constant string tension, and being strung up-to-pitch is its natural state. Leave it that way unless you need to change strings, clean the fretboard and/or frets, or do some other maintenance that requires you to remove the strings. This leads into our next myth…

Myth 2: “Taking all the strings off your guitar at once can damage the neck”

Vintage Fender Ad

An old Fender ad

Removing all your strings at once will not damage the neck. You can take them off and leave them off for a few days without worry. Now, if you need to leave the strings off (or completely slack) for weeks or months, such as for long-term storage or a serious repair of some sort, then simply loosen the truss rod bolt to remove any backward tension and your neck will be just fine.

I’ve seen YouTube videos of men claiming to weigh over 200 lbs (and I believe them) standing on guitar necks. I don’t recommend you do this, but trust me when I tell you that your guitar’s neck is far stronger and more durable than you give it credit for.

In fact, I was able to dig up this old Fender Guitars ad showing just such a stunt.

Myth (kinda) 3: “Never use lemon oil on your guitar’s fretboard”

I go into great detail on this topic in my article The Great Lemon Oil Debate. However, here’s the skinny version:

Dunlop 65 Ultimate Lemon Oil

If you want to use lemon oil, stick to stuff made for guitars. This Dunlop 65 Lemon Oil is good suff.

Whether or not this is a myth depends on what you mean by “lemon oil.” It’s perfectly safe (and good for your fretboard) to use a tiny dab of one of the “guitar lemon oils” being sold by reputable guitar companies such as Dunlop, Peavey, D’Addario, and Kyser. These companies have no desire to damage customer’s guitars, which would be very bad for business. These lemon oil products have very little actual lemon oil in them. They are primarily other oils–such as mineral oil–with just a small percentage of lemon oil added. Though I can’t confirm this, I’ve been told that some may not have any actual lemon oil in them at all–just lemon scent and yellow dye.

100% pure lemon oil at full-strength (or even partial strength) should not be used on your fretboard. It’s highly acidic stuff that’s so strong it can be used to remove adhesives and sanitize hard surfaces. It might look and smell great when you first apply it, but it’ll eventually dry out the wood (the opposite of what you want).

Lastly, play it safe and avoid lemon oil products that aren’t made specifically for guitars–such as those for furniture, hardwood floors, etc. They may be fine, but why risk it on your expensive guitar? Stick to lemon oil products produced by companies that know and love guitars.

Myth (kinda) 4: “Never use WD-40 on any part of your guitar”

If you read my article You May be Loving Your Guitar to Death you’re probably wondering why I’m contradicting myself and now calling this one a myth. In that article, I said to NEVER use WD-40 on ANY part of your guitar. Well, that’s actually good advice for beginners and others who don’t know what they’re doing. Here’s the deal with WD-40:

WD-40 is a good rust remover for metal parts, and guitar techs will sometimes use it (carefully) for this purpose… but they remove the rusty parts from the guitar first. This is the important distinction: WD-40 can be used to clean rusty metal guitar parts, but the parts should be removed from the guitar first. Never spray WD-40 onto anything that’s still attached to the guitar. Don’t get WD-40 on any bare wood nor on the glossy finish of your guitar. Don’t use WD-40 to “lubricate” anything on your guitar and don’t use it to clean your guitar strings–because no matter how thoroughly you think you removed the excess, there will always be a little left on the strings, which you can inadvertently transfer onto your fretboard.

Myth 5: “Never attempt to adjust your truss rod yourself”

It’s amazing how many guitarists are confounded by that little bolt under the cover on their headstock. I’ve met some who are literally afraid of it, and I also sometimes hear the objection, “I don’t want to crack or break the neck, so I’ll leave the truss rod to a pro.” I’ve even been asked, “Won’t I void my guitar’s warranty if I adjust the truss rod myself?” I did a quick Twitter poll about attitudes toward the truss rod, and here’s how 70 people responded:

Twitter Poll: How do you feel about your guitar's truss rod?

Here’s how 70 people responded to my Twitter poll about truss rods

Seriously folks, with just a little education you can safely and easily adjust your truss rod yourself. In fact, you need to know how to do this if you want to do your own setups, or simply keep your guitar buzz free throughout the year.

Throughout the year, wooden parts naturally expand and contract with changes in humidity. This will cause your neck to bend slightly forward or backward. This is totally natural, but can result in action that becomes too high or too low. The remedy is a slight tightening or loosening of the truss rod bolt–literally no more than 1/8th of a turn (or less) in either direction. Some guitars will play perfectly throughout the year without needing adjustment, but this is very rare.

As I pointed out in #2 above, your guitar’s neck is a lot tougher than you think. Yes, you should first learn the proper way to adjust the bolt, and learn what a “tight” and “loose” truss rod bolt feels like, but there’s some safe margin for error.

Myth 6: “Your truss rod is for adjusting action (string height).”

Wait a second! Didn’t I just say that you should adjust your truss rod if you’re action becomes too high or low? Yep, but what you need to understand is that a truss rod’s primary purpose is not to adjust action–that’s a secondary effect of adjusting the rod. The primary purpose of a truss rod is to adjust the amount of forward-bow or backward-bow in the guitar neck, and it just so happens that this will have a small effect on string height. To properly adjust string height during a setup, we raise or lower the guitar’s bridge, bridge saddles (if applicable), and nut.

So, think about it this way: if your guitar had comfortable action and was buzz free, but the strings seemed to mysteriously become a bit too high and uncomfortable, or too low and began buzzing, then a slight truss rod adjustment is the proper thing to do.

On the other hand, if everything’s been fine but you just want to raise or lower your action, then adjust that at the bridge, bridge saddles, and nut. Just know that when you do this, especially if you lower the strings dramatically, you may also need to adjust the truss rod slightly to compensate. This is where knowledge of how to properly set up a guitar will be needed, otherwise you can drive yourself a little crazy jumping from one thing to the next.

Myth 7: “If you plug a live cable (a guitar cable already plugged into a powered-on amp) into your guitar, you can damage the guitar’s electronics.”

A damaged, faulty, or improperly grounded guitar amp could indeed send electricity into a guitar, but this extremely rare and unfortunate scenario could happen regardless of what order things are plugged in. Getting shocked while playing guitar is a whole other topic–which I won’t go into here–that has nothing to do with the fact that you plugged in a guitar cable that’s already connected to a live amp.

Instead, the most annoying thing that’ll happen when you do this is the usual loud POP you get any time you plug the guitar-end of a live cable into your guitar.

Your guitar’s jack is called an “output jack” for a reason: it outputs a very weak signal through the guitar cable and into the amp. The signal does not flow the other direction–the amp is not feeding anything into your guitar.

Myth 8: “A guitar’s neck should be perfectly straight (or flat)”

To the naked eye the guitar’s neck looks straight, not to mention you hear phrases like “… a good, straight neck” kicked around in conversation. However, the reality is that guitar necks usually play their best with just a tiny amount of forward bow (or up-bow) that we call “relief.” In other words, the neck isn’t dead-flat, it’s actually bent forward just a bit. You see, when a guitar string is vibrating, it’s not just wiggling side-to-side, it’s actually vibrating around in an elliptical pattern… in all directions:

Guitar neck relief, or forward bow

Don’t confuse this natural forward bow with “a warped neck.” Relief, forward bow, back bow, etc. are normal conditions for a neck, whereas “warp” is a term used to describe a piece of wood that has twisted in a bad way that could potentially render it useless.

Myth 9: “You should oil your fretboard every time you change strings”

Whenever I hear someone say they oil their fretboard at every string change, I cringe a little. If you only change your strings once a year, then it’s probably fine. However, oiling your fretboard 3-4 times per year (or more)… yikes… that’s just too much oil.

Music Nomad F-ONE Fretboard Oil Cleaner and Conditioner

This is all I use now to oil fretboards: Music Nomad F-ONE Oil

Putting oil on a guitar’s fretboard is rarely necessary, unless you’ve done some intensive, deep cleaning that dried out the wood (for example using steel wool, naphtha, etc. to clean an extremely dirty fretboard). Live in a really dry climate, you say? In that case, your fretboard needs humidity, not oil.

If you’re going to oil your fretboard, that’s fine, just be sure to use the right kind of oil and only do it about once a year. As I said, you may need to oil more than that if you’re routinely gunking up your fretboard (which happens if you regularly play live) to the point that it has to be literally stripped clean several times each year.

Want to Cut Through All the Crap & Learn the Right Way?

For years after I bought my first guitar, I struggled with all this stuff, and on several occasions did accidental damage to my guitar. There was so much misinformation flying around out there that I finally decided to cut through all the crap and just learn the right way. I bought and consumed every book and video series that guitar repair guru Dan Erlewine and the Stewart-MacDonald company produced.

However, you don’t have to do all that. So, these two books are what I recommend to anyone wanting to cut through all the noise and learn the right way to setup, care for, and even repair their own guitars:

How to Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great

For those wanting to do basic electric guitar setups & general maintenance. It’s an easy read with practical, easy-to-understand instructions and tips. Includes DVD.

Guitar Player Repair Guide

For those wanting to get deeper into guitar repair & maintenance. More in-depth than the book on the left, and it also covers acoustic guitar setups. Includes DVD.

Question:

What guitar-care myths or legends YOU heard? Lay ’em on me and let’s see if we can put them to bed once and for all.


Guitar Cases: The Ultimate Guide

Guitar Cases: The Ultimate Guide

Last Updated: August 5, 2018

This post contains affiliate links, meaning, if you click through and make a purchase, I may earn a commission. This is at no additional cost to you. Learn more.

I still see it every now and then…

A guitar being toted around without a guitar case–completely naked and open to the elements. The owner is usually gripping it by the neck or has it tucked under their arm like a school book. The guitar is just one wrong-turn away from banging into a wall or some other immovable object.



Do You Really Need a Guitar Case?

I’m willing to bet that you do, but there are a few (rare) instances where someone might actually not need a guitar case.

You may think the sole purpose of a guitar case is to protect your guitar from damage or weather. Sure, protection is one function, but their other purpose is to make your life easier. Guitars can be awkward to carry around, so even a cheap gig bag will make transporting easier–allowing you to strap the guitar onto your back and tote it across town on your bike, if you’re so inclined.

Now, if you have a very cheap guitar and seriously don’t plan to ever take it anywhere–not even to the music store for occasional maintenance–then maybe, just maybe you don’t need a guitar case.

Types of Guitar Cases

There are 3 major categories of guitar cases:

  1. Soft cases or “gig bags”
  2. Hard cases
  3. Hybrid cases

Of course, there’s a lot of variety under each of these 3 broad categories, with lots of variation in price, weight, durability, and how well each will protect your guitar. Really, what kind of guitar case you need comes down to what you plan to do with the guitar. Are you just carrying it around inside your house, or are you regularly throwing it into a packed trailer and hauling it to live gigs? Depending on how active you are as a musician, you may actually want more than one type of case.

Now, let’s dig deeper on each of these major categories, break them down further, and discuss some of the pros and cons of each type of guitar case.

Category 1: Soft Guitar Cases (Gig Bags)

Soft Guitar Cases or Gig Bags

Once thought of as cheap, minimal protection, gig bags have really come a long way

Description

Gig bags have an exterior that’s usually made of nylon, polyester, leather, or some combination of those materials. In addition to standard carrying handles, they usually include at least 1 additional shoulder strap. Many even have backpack-style straps so you can comfortably wear the gig bag on your back, freeing-up your hands to do other things like riding a bicycle. Most gig bags include at least one large outer accessory pocket for sheet music, cables, straps, etc. Some high-end gig bags also include rubberized reinforcements on outer surfaces.

Best Used For

There was a time when gig bags were thought of only as cheap, minimal protection–suitable for low-priced guitars that weren’t going to be subjected to rigorous travel/transport. You bought a gig bag to make carrying the guitar easier, not to protect it. However, gig bags have come a long way and while light-duty, low-cost gig bags are still available, nowadays manufacturers such as Mono, Fusion, and GruvGear offer high-end gig bags that provide really good impact protection.

Gig bags can range in price from less than $10 to over $300, with most decent-quality gig bags falling in the $75 – $150 range. The beefier gig bags (what I like to refer to in this article as ‘high-end’) offer decent protection when transporting the guitar around town. Gig bags can be suitable for taking your guitar to/from gigs but only if you plan to hand-carry or generally keep the guitar with you most of the time. Gig bags are NOT suitable if you need to pack your guitar into an equipment trailer, or otherwise expect it to be knocked around a lot. Never use a gig bag where there’s a chance it can fall, or if there’s any chance something might fall on, bump into, or be stacked on top of it.

A Note About Flying With Gig Bags

Some of the other guitar blogs recommend using a gig bag if you plan to fly with your guitar–citing that air crew will be sympathetic to a soft case and therefore allow you to take the guitar on the plane. Yeah, maybe. In my opinion, this is a huge risk, as you have zero guarantees that air crew will be feeling generous or that there will be room on the plane. Therefore, I do not recommend using a gig bag for air travel. Buy a molded ATA flight case with TSA latches (discussed later in this article) instead.

Pros and Cons of Gig Bags


Pros

  • Can be very low-cost, if you shop on the budget end of the spectrum
  • Very light
  • Shoulder strap and/or backpack-style straps
  • Large storage pockets for big items like music books, sheet music, etc.

Cons

  • Budget gig bags offer little protection against serious impacts
  • Little protection against dust
  • Little protection against temperature and humidity
  • Terrible for air travel if forced to luggage-check or gate-check the guitar

Gig Bags at a Glance

Gig bags at-a-glance

My Recommended Gig Bags

Thinking of buying a soft case? Below I’ve hand-picked a few excellent ones for you at 3 price points in each category of electric and acoustic. Note: These might not fit your guitar. Please research to ensure you get the right size for your axe:

Fender Metro electric guitar gig bag

Budget Electric: Fender Metro

Gator Transit electric guitar gig bag

Mid-Priced Electric: Gator Transit

Mono Vertigo electric guitar gig bag

High-End Electric: Mono Vertigo

Protec Deluxe acoustic gig bag

Budget Acoustic: Protec Deluxe

Reunion Blues RBXA2 acoustic guitar gig bag

Mid-Priced Acoustic: Reunion Blues RBXA2

Mono M80 acoustic guitar gig bag

High-End Acoustic: Mono M80

Category 2: Hard Guitar Cases

Hard cases have an outer shell that can be made from some combination of hard materials such as wood, plastic, fiberglass, metal, or even expensive specialty materials like carbon fiber. Inside, they’re soft, padded, and lined with a plush material that’ll protect the guitar from hard impacts and won’t scratch the finish. They often include one or more compartments inside for smaller accessories. Hard cases always have 1 main handle for carrying and some also include an optional shoulder strap. Some even have luggage-style wheels built in.

There’s quite a bit of variation in this category, so I’ll split “hard cases” into a few sub-categories and discuss each one in detail. So, let’s dive in and begin with my least-favorite type of hard case…

Hard Case Types: Chipboard (Cardboard) Guitar Cases – DO NOT BUY

Chipboard guitar case

Flimsy and low-quality hardware. Never put a guitar you actually care about in one of these chipboard cases

Description

This pathetic excuse for a guitar case barely deserves to be in the “hard case” category. Made from chipboard–a thick cardboard-like material–they’re somewhere between a soft and hard case. They have extremely cheap latches and hardware that is prone to failure. They lack any kind of padding or plush material inside to protect the guitar or hold it securely.

Chipboard cases are really only available for acoustic guitars. When shopping for a guitar case online, you won’t always see “chipboard” mentioned in the product title, so be very careful when ordering a case for your acoustic. If you come across what looks like a sturdy acoustic guitar case, but only costs about $50, it might be one of these chipboard pieces-of-crap (but not always). A dead giveaway is that online sellers  will usually only advertise a chipboard case with the lid closed. They won’t show the inside because the lack of a soft, plush interior would turn off most buyers… and rightly so.

Best Used For

Nothing, in my opinion. As you might’ve guessed, chipboard guitar cases offer very little protection, and some can be downright dangerous because the interior isn’t padded. Worse, the latches, hinges, or carrying handle can fail or come loose–usually when you least expect it. I advise just staying away from these cases, because there are better options available for about the same price.

Pros and Cons of Chipboard Guitar Cases


Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Not much else

Cons

  • Low quality hardware that’s prone to failure
  • Seem inexpensive, but actually overpriced for what you get
  • No interior padding to protect the guitar
  • No protection against serious impacts
  • Little protection against dust
  • No protection against temperature and humidity extremes

Chipboard Cases at a Glance

Chipboard guitar cases at-a-glance

Again, I do not recommend buying a chipboard guitar case. You can find better, more protective cases for the same price or cheaper, as you’ll see in the next sections.

Hard Case Types: Hardshell (Wooden) Guitar Cases

The iconic wooden hardshell guitar case

The old standby: the iconic wooden hardshell guitar case

Description

This is the old standby–the iconic guitar case that, for many years, was the only style hard case that came standard with new guitars. They’re still common, but we’re seeing more and more guitar manufacturers shift away from these wooden cases and using other materials instead.

Hardshell guitar cases are usually made of ¼” or ⅜” plywood and covered primarily in tweed or tolex (the same stuff most guitar amps are covered with). The factory OEM hard cases that come with a guitar sometimes have molded interiors that fit the guitar exactly, which can offer excellent (but not guaranteed) protection against serious impacts.

Best Used For

Wooden hardshell cases offer excellent all-around protection for everyday ground transport, such as carrying the guitar around town, taking it on road trips, etc. They can withstand some pretty hard knocks, however, they’re not indestructible. So, don’t be careless and if you travel a lot be sure to inspect your hardshell case for any signs of serious structural or hardware (latches, hinges, and handle) damage.

I don’t recommend using hardshell cases for air travel. You won’t be able to carry it on the plane, which means you’ll have to either gate-check or baggage-check the guitar as luggage. The main problem is that the hardware isn’t suited to the abuses of baggage conveyors and careless baggage handlers, nor do these cases include a TSA recognized lock. Now, I did travel with a wooden hardshell case once–years ago before I knew any better. I got lucky–my case arrived with a few gouges and a bit of torn tolex, but my guitar was undamaged. However, baggage-checking a wooden hardshell case is a huge risk that I don’t recommend you take with a valuable guitar.

Pros and Cons of Wooden Hardshell Guitar Cases

Pros

  • Reasonably priced
  • Fairly durable and should last awhile (depending on usage)
  • Lots of custom covering options if you buy an aftermarket case
  • Good protection against serious impacts
  • Fair protection against humidity & temperature
  • Good protection against dust

Cons

  • Somewhat heavy
  • Latches and hinges usually aren’t top-quality
  • Not suitable for air travel

Wooden Hardshell Cases at a Glance

Wooden hardshell guitar cases at a glance

My Recommended Wooden Hardshell Cases

If you think you’d like a wooden hardshell case, below I’ve hand-picked some for you at 2 price points in each category of electric and acoustic. Note: These may not fit your guitar, so do your own research to ensure you get the right size for your axe:

ChromaCast wooden hardshell electric guitar case

Budget Electric: ChromaCast

Gator tweed wooden hardshell electric guitar case

Mid-Priced Electric: Gator Tweed

Crossrock CRW700DBK Wooden Acoustic Guitar Hard Case

Mid-Priced Acoustic: Crossrock Hard Case

Hard Case Types: Molded Guitar Cases

A heavy-duty molded flight case by SKB

A heavy-duty molded flight case by SKB

Description

Many guitar companies are now using molded plastics such as ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) or PE (polyethylene) for their “factory OEM” cases instead of plywood. This type of case has really gained popularity in the past 20 years or so, and for good reason. These plastics are durable and rigid, yet have enough flex to make them highly impact resistant. At the ultra high-end, we see companies like Hoffee, Karura, Timbre, and Calton using materials like fiberglass or carbon fiber and offering extra options such as Thinsulate barriers for thermal insulation. Some molded guitar cases are also airtight and watertight, providing excellent protection from weather, dust, and an accidental dump in the ocean. Molded ATA flight cases include TSA locks, and some even include wheels to make it easier to schlep through the airport.

Best Used For

This category of case is very versatile, depending on what type of molded case you ultimately get. Lower-cost ABS plastic cases provide excellent protection for everyday transportation of your guitar around town, on road trips, etc. They can withstand some decent impacts, but they’re not immune to damage, and tend to use average-quality hardware (similar to wooden cases). Essentially, the same disclaimers apply here as with wooden hardshell cases: don’t be careless, and inspect the case and hardware regularly for damage.

A Word About Flight Cases

A common misconception is that all molded guitar cases are “flight cases” (a case built specifically for the rigors of air travel). They’re not. You can’t assume a guitar case is a flight case just because it’s made out of plastic. Actual guitar flight cases have a few design upgrades that help them withstand the unique hazards of being thrown around like luggage or other cargo.

If you purchase one of the higher-priced flight cases, or an ultra high-end (or custom) flight case made from fiberglass or carbon fiber, you’re getting a suit of armor for your guitar that can rival the protection offered by heavy-duty road cases (discussed next). As long as it’s labeled with terms such as “ATA”, “flight case”, etc. and includes TSA latches, you can actually check your guitar as baggage on flights and be fairly confident it’ll survive the trip. Of course, when it comes to air travel there are never any guarantees, but your guitar will have a fighting chance in a high-quality molded ATA flight case.

Pros and Cons of Molded Guitar Cases

Pros

  • Budget versions are reasonably priced
  • Durable and should last a long time (depending on usage)
  • Sometimes lighter than wooden cases (depends on model)
  • Even the budget models offer good protection against impacts
  • Good protection against humidity & temperature
  • Good protection against dust

Cons

  • Heavy-duty flight cases can be heavy
  • Hardware on the budget versions can be mediocre
  • High-end flight cases can be extremely expensive

Molded Cases at a Glance

Molded guitar cases at-a-glance

My Recommended Molded Cases

Here are my recommendations for molded cases, for both electric and acoustic guitars. Each quality-level gets progressively heavier with “budget” being the lightest and “high-end” the heaviest. Usual disclaimer: do your own research to ensure you get the right size. I can’t guarantee any of these will fit your guitar.

SKB Hardshell Electric Guitar Case

Budget Electric: SKB Universal Guitar

Gator GTSA Series Electric Guitar Flight Case

Mid-Priced Electric: Gator GTSA Flight Case

SKB Injection Molded Electric Guitar Case, TSA Latches

High-End Electric: SKB TSA Flight Case

SKB Dreadnought Acoustic Case

Budget Acoustic: SKB Dreadnought

Hard Case Types: Road Cases

Road case for guitar

Road cases: the ultimate guitar protection and heavy as hell

Description

The final sub-category of hard cases we’ll explore is the mighty “road case.”

These are the ones the pros use to keep their gear safe when touring. They trust these cases to keep their guitars (and other stage equipment) safe during transport by air, bus, or truck (or all 3). Go see any touring band and you’ll invariably see road cases somewhere at the gig–sometimes on stage.

Like wooden hardshell cases, road cases have walls that are made of 1/4″ or 3/8″ plywood. However, road cases take protection to the next level by sandwiching the plywood between layers of thick, tough PVC, HDPE, or similar material (varies by manufacturer). This bolsters the plywood’s natural strength and reduces the chance of it splintering or breaking. All edges are protected with aluminum plating fastened with heavy rivets. This aluminum edging also contributes to the case’s rigidity and strength. Corners are reinforced with thick steel end-caps and all latches and hinges are made of some variety of thick, heavy-duty metal.

It’s worth pointing out that some molded plastic cases are also considered road cases, but for this category I’m limiting my discussion specifically to the wood-and-metal variety, like the road case you see pictured above (that one’s an Anvil guitar case).

Best Used For

Road cases are expensive and heavy as hell, so they’re best suited to professional touring musicians who have road crew. Road crew–affectionately known as “roadies”–are people who’s job it is to load and carry this stuff around for the artists. Though some manufacturers are taking steps to try and make road cases lighter (like the new Fly Anvil series), they’re still extremely heavy. The average weight of a high-quality guitar road case while empty is about 25-35 pounds. Add the weight of your guitar to that equation and you can see how back-breaking it would be to try and carry one of these yourself. Also, good-quality guitar road cases can be very expensive, usually in excess of $400 for a case. The reason I keep using the term “high-quality” is because, of course, there are also low-cost road cases available. They’re usually lighter, but the tradeoff is that they don’t provide the same level of protection as their more expensive counterparts.

Though I’ve never confirmed this myself (and don’t recommend you try it), I’ve been told that you could throw a road case (with your guitar inside) from a 2-story height onto concrete. Your guitar would be undamaged, the case would probably need some minor repairs, and the concrete would probably be toast. Of course, there are a lot of variables in that scenario, but you get the picture. Just search YouTube for “road case strength test” and you’ll find a few such videos.

Pros and Cons of Road Cases


Pros

  • Excellent protection against impacts
  • Excellent protection against temperature and humidity
  • Excellent protection against dust
  • Great for all modes of travel, but only if you have a roadie to carry it for you

Cons

  • Extremely heavy
  • Very expensive

Road Cases at a Glance

Guitar road cases at-a-glance

My Recommended Road Cases

If you’ve got a tour coming up and have a roadie to carry your stuff, here are my recommendations for electric and acoustic guitar road cases. Remember: measure your guitar to ensure you get the right size. I can’t guarantee these will fit your axe.

Gator G-Tour Electric Guitar Road Case

Mid-Priced Electric: Gator G-Tour

Anvil electric guitar road case

High-End Electric: Anvil plush-lined

Category 3: Hybrid Guitar Cases

Hybrid guitar case

Is it a gig bag, or a hard case? Well, it’s a little of both

Description

If a gig bag and a hard case got together and made a baby, the result would be a hybrid case–the last major category we’ll cover here. Hybrid guitar cases essentially have the soft exterior features of a gig bag, but have the rigid-foam shape and plush, padded interior of a hard case.

Like gig bags, hybrid cases open and close with a heavy-duty zipper. Other similarities to gig bags include a soft handle, shoulder strap, backpack-style straps, and a large pocket on the outside. Like hard cases, they’ll have a plush-lined rigid foam interior, interior accessory compartment(s), and sometimes have a hard carrying handle.

Best Used For

Hybrid cases are great for people who need the light weight of a gig bag, but want just slightly more protection against impacts than most gig bags provide. However, hybrid cases still offer less protection than a wooden or molded hardshell case. This means they’re appropriate for general transport around town and to/from gigs, but only if you plan to hand-carry or otherwise have the guitar with you most of the time. Don’t use a hybrid case if you plan to put it in situations where it could fall over, or where other things might fall or get stacked on top of the case.

When it comes to flying, the same rule applies here as with gig bags: just don’t do it. If you plan to fly with your guitar, don’t use a hybrid case, use a molded ATA flight case instead.

Pros and Cons of Hybrid Cases


Pros

  • Low cost
  • Very light
  • Slightly more protective than gig bags
  • Shoulder strap and/or backpack-style straps
  • Large external storage pocket
  • Interior accessory storage compartment(s)

Cons

  • Little protection against serious impacts
  • Little protection against dust
  • Little protection against temperature and humidity
  • Not suitable for air travel

Hybrid Cases at a Glance

Hybrid guitar cases at-a-glance

My Recommended Hybrid Cases

You know the drill by now: measure your guitar before buying one of these to make sure your guitar will actually fit.

SKB Hybrid Case for Electric Guitar

Budget Electric: SKB EPS Foam

Road Runner Polyfoam Electric Guitar Case

Budget Electric: RoadRunner Polyfoam

Kaces Polyfoam Electric Guitar Case

Mid-Priced Electric: Kaces Polyfoam

Knox Dreadnought Acoustic Lightweight Hard-Foam Guitar Case

Budget Acoustic: Knox Hard-Foam

Gator Lightweight Polyfoam Dreadnought Guitar Case

High-End Acoustic: Gator Polyfoam

Final Thoughts

We just covered why you may (or may not) need a guitar case, then outlined the 3 major types of guitar cases: soft cases (gig bags), hard cases, and hybrid cases. We broke hard cases out into the sub-types: chipboard, wooden hardshell, molded, and road cases. Within each of those, I gave you a few recommendations, should you be interested in buying one for your guitar.

Oh sure, there are more flavors of guitar cases out there–specially shaped cases, custom-painted cases, cases made from exotic materials or decorated with rare jewels. Regardless of how unique a guitar case is, 99% of the time it falls under one of the categories we’ve discussed here.

Choose wisely, and know that it’s completely normal to own more than one type of case for different travel situations.

What Kind of Guitar Case do YOU Use?

What kind of case is right for you? Why? Ever had a case save your guitar from disaster? Ever had a case totally fail on you? Let me know in the comments down below!